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Coal Play

When England walked away from coal

Stephen Beard Apr 9, 2014
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Former mining communities around Britain have been marking what is for them a grim anniversary: it has been 30 years since the start of a national miners strike that convulsed the U.K. and its coal industry. The year-long strike over mine closures failed. After the strike, scores of mines were mothballed and a work force that once comprised more than a million men dwindled to a few thousand. Today, only three deep mines remain in operation in the U.K., and two of them are marked for closure.

Why did Britain decide to stop digging 30 years ago? Was this solely about coal, or was it political?

Ex-miner Mike Clark has no doubts. “It was political,” he says firmly. Margaret Thatcher – the Conservative Prime Minister at the time – “she would do everything she could to break the working class of Great Britain. That’s why she decided to close the pits. Don’t forget that at the time, the coal mines were publicly-owned. It was a nationalized industry.”

The miners believed Thatcher targeted them for reasons of political revenge. The National Union of Mineworkers had humbled a previous Conservative government in the 1970s by going on strike and triggering a general election which that government lost. But Thatcher may have had a more practical motivation for taking on the miners in 1984: They were Britain’s most powerful and militant workers, the shock troops of a labor movement that Thatcher was determined to weaken.

“She wanted to redress the balance back in favor of capitalism,” argues Christine Rawson, who grew up in a mining village in south Yorkshire. “Thatcher was determined that the unions would not gain strength, and would lose strength.”

Quite right, too, says Dieter Helm, a professor of energy at Oxford University Dieter Helm. When Thatcher came to power, British labor relations were in chaos; the country was crippled by more than 2,000 strikes a year. “There was a general consensus that union power had reached a level where the British economy could no longer really function,” says Helm. “And there was a very good economic case for closing the pits as well because of the high cost of deep pit mining. The contraction of the U.K. coal industry was economically correct. It had to happen. It was going to happen. It would have happened anyway.”

Britain’s deep mines could no longer compete on price with cheap imports of high quality coal from open cast mines in South Africa, Australia, and the United States. And, furthermore, the Thatcher government believed that those imports improved the country’s energy security. Margaret Thatcher claimed that it was safer to rely on foreign coal than on the output of British miners. During the strike she called them: “The Enemy Within.”

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